In the span of a week, trainer John Veitch has violated two principal canons of his profession:
When you run a favorite who is beaten, blame the jockey or the condition of the track -- but never yourself.
Don't enter a filly against colts.
Veitch's brilliant 3-year-old, Davona Dale, had her eight-race winning streak snapped in the Alabama Stakes. When his friends tried to suggest alibis, the trainer brushed them aside. "She lost because of bad training," he insisted. "It was my fault." Veitch maintained that he had not worked the filly hard enough to win at 1 1/4 miles after a six-week layoff.
Believing that, Veitch carried his reasoning to its own logical conclusion. If Davona Dale's only problem last week was that she was not fit enough, she should be fit after that race. And so the trainer entered her in Saturday's $125,000 Travers Stakes against some of the toughest 3-year-old males in the country.
Her seven rivals are Smarten, General Assembly, Valdez, Screen King, Private Account, Steady Growth and King Green.
"When you look at racing in other countries," Veitch said, "there is no basis for the notion that fillies can't beat colts. In this country, there are just so many more opportunities for fillies that there is no need to run them against males."
Somehow, however, the fact that females don't often run against males has been turned into a dictum that they shouldn't run against them. Trainers always become the object of interrogation and second-guessing when they do it. No female has tried the Travers, Saratoga's most prestigious race, since Chris Evert finished third in 1974.
Davona Dale's best races earlier in the year gave the definite impression that she could beat the best horses of her generation, regardless of sex. But her performance against It's In The Air in the Alabama was so dull that she would have to wake up dramatically to have a chance in the Travers.
Although the two superstars of the 3-year-old crop, Spectacular Bid and Coastal, are not at Saratoga, the field is deep with talent.
Smarten, the morning-line favorite, has won six straight stakes races and nearly $450,000 by picking his spots as judiciously as Sugar Ray Leonard. He has traveled to outposts of civilization like Sportsman's Park and Thistledown for stakes with big purses and weak fields, and he has won them impressively. But he has not yet proved himself against top-class competition.
Valdez, too, is an unknown quantity, for Easterners at least. He is trained by the great Lax Barrera, and he has won stakes on the West Coast in fast time, but the quality of the competition he has defeated is hard to gauge. One of his principal rivals at Hollywood Park has been Shamgo, who will be remembers for his 18-length loss in the Kentucky Derby.
The best known, and perhaps the most formidable, of the males in the Travers is General Assembly, the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby. The son of Secretariat has been an in-and-outer for most of his life because of his physical imperfections. But cognoscenti who saw him in the paddock here last week said his troublesome ankles looked much better than they have in a long time. General Assembly won his prep race impressively, speeding seven furlings in 1:21, and if he can hold his form until Saturday, he should have an edge in the Travers.
If he does spoil Davona Dale's venture into open competition, however, it will not be because of male supremacy or any of the other myths that surround filly-versus-colt encounters. It will be because his is apparently coming into the race in peak form, while she is not.